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The Simple Explanation of How College Football Rankings Work

Updated January 28th, 2022
Published January 31, 2019

College football has always had a difficult relationship with rankings. There are too many teams and not enough games to thoroughly evaluate the abilities of each program. The reality is that there is no way to compile a perfect rankings system.

The end result is a fistful of different ranking systems. If used correctly, these ranking systems are a tremendous tool when betting college football online.

The Coaches Poll, the AP Poll, the Playoff Committee rankings, various computer-based hierarchies: it can be difficult to keep all the various ranking systems straight in your head. Here’s a handy cheat sheet of sorts, which provides an outline of each college football ranking system and details their varying levels of importance for sports bettors.

How are College Football Rankings Determined

You’re probably wondering, “how are college football teams ranked?” Unfortunately, the answer here is there isn’t one universal college football ranking system, and they all work a little bit differently.

That’s why there are often discrepancies in teams rank across different systems. For example, while Alabama may be ranked first using one ranking system, Clemson may be the top team elsewhere, and Oklahoma could be number one somewhere else.

The current “official” polls are all human-based, meaning they are subject to the opinions of various groups of people. Computer rankings carry no weight with the NCAA itself but, as you’ll soon learn, can be very helpful to sports bettors.

College Football Rankings Systems Explained

Let’s take a look at how college football ranking works. We’ll explain each of the following college football ranking systems. If you’re looking to understand a particular system, click the links to jump ahead.

Example of what college football rankings look like

College Football Playoff Committee Rankings

College Football Playoff Committee rankings are a list of the top 25 teams, ranked by the committee that selects teams for the College Football Playoff.

Playoff Committee rankings are best for figuring out which teams have a chance at making the Playoff because the list clearly indicates the committee’s preferences. That said, it’s not particularly good at evaluating the relative strength of teams. A fantastic mid-major who’s pasting everybody will likely be ranked well behind less impressive Power 5 teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC.

Big-name programs like Texas, USC, and Michigan are often overrated because of the Committee’s responsibility to TV rights holders – broadcasters want well-known teams in the playoffs, after all. Things like conference championships, which ultimately do not affect team performance, are heavily weighted. It’s a human committee, and thus a flawed one, and the justifications the committee provides for its rankings are often comedy gold.

Ultimately, these rankings remain important because this committee has final say in who gets a chance at the national title. They’re just not as useful for directly comparing the relative strength of two teams.

When Do CFP Committee Rankings Come Out?

College Football Playoff Committee rankings are released every Tuesday night, starting roughly seven weeks into the season. The final rankings for each season, which determine the Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl games, come out in early December once the regular season is completed.

Who Puts Playoff Committee Rankings Together?

The College Football Playoff Committee is made up of athletic directors and university chiefs from across the country, as well as some retired media types and (for a while) Condoleezza Rice.

What Do CFP Committee Rankings Determine?

The Playoff Committee rankings determine who goes to the top bowl games, including those that make up the College Football Playoff.

Here’s a rule for every ranking system based on opinion polling: higher-ranked teams will not necessarily be favored against lower-ranked teams when they meet head-to-head.

Bettors should be wary of putting too much credence on human ranking systems when making wagers. Sportsbooks do their own calculations of relative team strength. These calculations often line up with the polls—the top-ranked team will generally be a sizable favorite over anyone not in, say, the top-15—but this is not always the case.

Sportsbooks are less susceptible to things like recency bias and brand name programs, and they are more attuned to factors like margin-of-victory and overall efficiency, which are a better gauge of future success than win/loss records.

The AP Poll

Put together by 65 sportswriters from across the country, the Associated Press Poll is one of college football’s oldest traditions. Before the introduction of the College Football Playoff, the “national champion” was whoever finished the season atop the AP Poll.

How Does the AP Poll Work?

The AP Poll is another human poll of the top-25 teams in the nation, but it’s a little bit more palatable than the committee rankings. Really good mid-majors tend to be ranked higher by the AP than the playoff committee, but the rankings still skew towards the Power 5 and particularly the SEC.

The preseason edition of the AP Poll is often the subject of much debate, which is its purpose. After all, the Associated Press is most interested in selling headlines, not accurately predicting winners.

That’s why you can expect to see this ranking released exceptionally early. In 2021, the first AP preseason poll was released on January 15. While it didn’t contain many surprises, it’s awfully tough to predict how dynamics will shift with nearly nine months until the season is underway.

When Do AP Polls Come Out?

The AP Top 25 is released every Sunday during college football season, usually around noon ET. Preseason rankings are released directly after the conclusion of the previous season.

Who Puts AP Polls Together?

A group of Associated Press-affiliated sportswriters from across the country.

What Do AP Polls Mean?

The AP Poll represents a consensus opinion from top sportswriters in America. The poll has no effect on who plays who in the postseason.

The Coaches Poll

What do sportswriters know, anyway? Coaches are at the coalface of college football; surely their opinion is better informed than anybody else’s. That’s the thinking, behind the Amway Coaches Poll, which polls a panel of 65 FBS head coaches to produce a(nother) top-25.

Coaches Poll rankings are often quite similar to those from the AP Poll. Once upon a time, it was also one component of the BCS rankings. Interestingly, the old crystal football that used to be the national championship trophy was named “The Coaches Trophy.” Apparently, they still give you one when you win.

The Coaches Poll is, if anything, a little kinder to mid-majors and a little less likely to get caught up in the hype than the AP Poll. Each coach who agrees to be on the panel submits their top 25. A first-place vote is worth 25 points, second place gets 24 points, and so on down to one point for 25th.

When Does the Coaches Poll Come Out?

Every Sunday during college football season, generally slightly before the AP poll.

Who Puts the Coaches Poll Together?

Amway/USA Today polls 65 FBS coaches, including some of the most prominent in the country.

What Does the Coaches Poll Mean?

The Coaches Poll indicates who those 65 coaches think the best teams in the country are. Like the AP Poll, it has no effect on who plays who in the postseason.

BCS Rankings: A Thing of the Past

The Bowl Championship Series is how we used to determine who played in the national championship game. In short, it aggregated the results of the Coaches Poll, the AP Poll (and later the Harris Interactive Poll), and different computer-ranking systems to calculate the top two teams in the nation.

BCS rankings are no longer a thing – but many fans and bettors confuse today’s playoff committee rankings with this older term.  This confusion is understandable considering the BCS endured from 1998-2013 and college football isn’t exactly big on change.

When Do BCS Rankings Come Out?

They don’t anymore, ever since the Playoff was introduced.

Who Puts BCS Rankings Together?

They were a composite of human and computer rankings.

What Do BCS Rankings Mean?

Nothing, because they don’t exist anymore. We cannot stress enough how little existing they do these days.

Computer Rankings

Human polls are bad at predicting future performance.

If a team is ranked #1 this week, what does that mean for their chances against a #2 ranked program? Can they cover a seven-point spread on the road? Is the difference between #1 and #2 bigger than the difference between #2 and #3? Human polls don’t provide any real indication, but there’s another option for bettors looking for a deeper understanding of each team’s relative abilities.

Computer rankings are systems built to analyze games and come up with a more accurate understanding of relative team quality. They’re blind to things like brand name and hype. For the most part, they simply analyze the plays of every football game to produce an understanding of relative team quality.

Key statistical metrics like offensive and defensive efficiency and success rate are favored over the (somewhat trite) narrative arcs that sports media (and the rankings produced by sports media sites) seem to favor. They’re also unconcerned with concepts of respect or fairness, such that a team can beat a rival fair and square and find itself ranked behind that same opponent anyway. For this reason, they tend to annoy die-hard fans and find favor with bettors.

A mobile sportsbook app displaying college football betting lines

Best Computer Rankings for Betting

Football Outsiders (the people that make DVOA efficiency ratings for NFL teams) puts together a rating system called “S&P+,” which uses play-by-play analysis to measure performance and rank teams based on their efficiency, explosiveness, field position, ability to finish drives, and turnover margin.

The site also produces the Fremeau Efficiency Index (or FEI) which calculates the number of points scored over the expected number of points based on starting field position, and “F/+,” which is a combination of the FEI and S&P+. Both are effective ways to formulate win expectancy percentages, which can be used for moneyline betting, and projected scores, which are great when betting against the spread.

No system is perfect, but these efficiency rankings tend to perform pretty well against the spread, particularly in the first few weeks of the season.

ESPN’s Football Power Index has similar aims, in that it calculates the number of expected points for a given down, distance, and field position. The difference lies in the frequency with which the metric is calculated: whereas FEI predicts expected points per possession, the Power Index does the same calculation for every individual play.

The final computer-modeled metric all bettors should be aware of is Massey-Peabody. The criteria behind this ranking system is a little opaque, but from what we know, they use an improved metric for yards per play rushing and passing, plus efficiency numbers for scoring and play success.

When Do Computer Rankings Come Out?

New computer rankings come out at various times during the week, although they are usually a little slower than, say, the easier-to-compile Coaches Poll.

Who Puts Computer Rankings Together?

Whoever has the time. If you’ve got a head for numbers, you could compile your own!

What Do Computer Rankings Mean?

They’re only as important as you make them and have no official status with the NCAA. Use them to inform your wagers and more effectively handicap college football matchups. Computers are inherently less biased and therefore could potentially be more useful to you in picking a winner between Oregon and Washington or Florida and Georgia, for example.

Unlike the human polls, which put a massive premium on winning games, computer models tend to value more detailed factors like margin of victory and strength of schedule. These tend to be better indicators of future performance when compared and evaluated collectively.

Learn More About College Football

Ranking systems are useful, but they don’t paint the whole picture when it comes to college football betting. In fact, the best NCAA football betting sites use a variety of handicapping methods to set lines for each game.

Check out our how-to bet on sports section for more information on everything you need to know when it comes to betting on NCAAF action!

Understand the Rules for College Sports Betting

Lastly, keep in mind that different states have different restrictions for wagering on college sports. For example, Illinois and New Jersey sportsbooks aren’t allowed to accept wagers on in-state college teams. On the flip side, many states have a much more open approach towards college sports betting.

For example, both Iowa online sports betting apps and Indiana online sportsbooks allow you to bet on all college sports, including on in-state NCAA teams like Notre Dame and Iowa State. Colorado sportsbooks also allow wagers on local college teams but have restrictions on live betting. Similarly, Arizona sportsbooks will have lines on in-state teams when sports betting goes live on September 9, 2021, but props on individual player performances won’t be available.

Louisiana online sports betting apps are now live, giving residents a chance to bet on their in-state flagship LSU Tigers.

No matter where you live, follow the law and always bet within your limits. Have fun and enjoy the action this football season!

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